Ethan Parker, so nice to meet you! Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into art?
I got into art as a kid, you know, drawing my favorite cartoon characters and comic heroes. Mostly I would watch Japanese cartoons (anime) and started to try to draw my favorite characters from those shows. But as time wore on, I got a lot of bullying about liking anime since most teenagers in the early 2000’s thought cartoons were wack, and that anime was especially uncool. However, I kept doing my art thing until I had a misfortune where I lost all my art supplies and 4-5 years worth of artwork and sketchbooks. So I put it down for almost a decade until 2014 when I was going thru a major depressive bout. My partner at the time encouraged me to try activities I found enjoyable, and since I used to really love art, I picked it up again. It was like starting over, but the progress has gone a lot quicker since I feel it was just a matter of getting back in the habit of drawing, but I’ve still got a long way to go and a lot more to learn.
It’s incredible to see such talent in someone who is self-taught. Is this something you trained yourself to or did it come to you natural?
A little of both! Growing up, I always saw my mother creating art whether it was her jewelry making or painting or airbrushing, watching her was super fun! Needless to say I was an art-minded kid that enjoyed art classes in elementary, so I sought them out in middle and high school. But those classes didn’t really focus on the aspects of drawing that I loved: comics and animation. In the late 90s and early 2000s, I ran into a lot of roadblocks trying to get my art teachers to instruct on what folks call “low brow” art, so I turned to the internet. I practically lived online, learning how to draw the manga and anime characters I loved so much. But I have never been one to learn by reading, so I ditched the tutorials and blogs for pencil and paper. Learning to draw things from my head instead of what I saw on the TV was, and still is, challenging. Now I use a couple of art mannequins and take a ridiculous amount of selfies to reference for facial expressions instead of collecting images online to use for illustration.
There is a comic-style/pop-art style to your work. Was this always the style of illustration you worked with or did an evolution take place? If the latter, how did that evolution come about?
Kind of yes and kind of no. As I mentioned, I have always had a love for comics/manga and Japanese animation, so I feel it was only natural that my artwork became an outward manifestation of that influence. I’ve also always been a big fan of pop-art and more contemporary art styles. I feel that comic art is just as legitimate, impactful and relevant as something you’d see in the MOMA, and that there is space for “low brow” art in contemporary art museums. I am still developing my own style, a way that allows me to combine the aspects of comics/manga that adore with the intersections of my life from which I draw inspiration.
Your work is very rooted in blackness and queer culture. Tell us more about that and why this is so important to you?
Its because I live at the intersection of blackness and queerness that I want to share out my experience here. We’re constantly bombarded with images of how queer people and black people are supposed to be, and as many folks have discovered on their own — myself included — it is difficult to fit into just one category of anything. My Blackness impacts my queerness and visa versa. But honestly speaking, I just wanna to queer Black art spaces. Queer history is Black history, and Black history is queer history. To separate the two does injustice to both, so when I create I do so unapologetically. I also do it because if I don’t, who will? Growing up I didn’t see any queer people represented in anything, especially in Black art. But we outchea, always have and always will be.
What are the challenges you face in Austin of being an intersectional artist. That is being black and queer.
Every. Single. Damn. Thing. First and foremost would be the always lingering debate of whether I should pander my artwork to white folks or not. Austin is filled with an awesome art scene…for white artists. From “call to artists” posts to what gets press in the Chronicle or Statesman, or even what exhibits/galleries come to town, almost every venue leaves my artwork feeling tokenized in some way or another. Either I’m the only black artist or the only queer artist, with the exception of the Art Is Cool showcase last month where many of the artists were both Black and queer. Trying to earn income with my work as a tokenized artist is a double-edged sword of sorts. Folks either don’t “get it” because of the queer themes or they don’t buy it because of the color of my characters’ skin. Either way it leaves me with a stack of really rad unsold prints and zines to take back to my studio. But beyond waffling back and forth between where I make my characters more “accessible” to non-Black people or tone down the over queer vibe in my pieces to make ends meet, the other challenges I face pale in comparison — no pun intended.
Has your work always had a political tinge to it? If so, what are the themes and issues that are at the forefront of your mind? Are there any issues, you haven’t been able to introduce into your art? If so, why not?
My mere existence is radical and political. Whether or not my art has black folks and queer themes doesn’t take away from them having a Black, queer, trans creator. When I picked my art back up in summer 2014, I was using it as a vehicle to express how intense it was to live in a queer, Black body by creating some journal-style comics about my experiences and conversations I had with folks in my daily life. It was cathartic. And that catharsis gave me a voice I didn’t know I had. I started putting my artwork on a blog to kinda pass the time and track progress, but soon folks started messaging me and letting me know how much they relate to words and images. It felt good to know I wasn’t alone in my feelings, but it also sparked something that made me so frustrated because I knew that more people were struggling with the same challenges but without voice. It wasn’t until November of 2015 that I started working on national campaigns that centered around social justice and activism for Black queer and trans communities, and that is when I really saw how necessary it is to have artists backing the folks taking to the streets and being frontrunners. Art is impactful, it can say what 1,000 speeches and rallies cannot. One of my favorite Nina Simone quotes is, “…an artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” If my little comics and illustrations can uplift even one person, inspire them to do more, to do better, to keep going, to try again, then I am satisfied with my work.
Currently I create around the experiences I’ve lived and the intersections I frequent. While I can make generalizations and weave tales about how I wish things could be or how I’d change them if I could, I like to share the small, truthful moments in my own reality that connect me to the causes I stand for. At the moment, I am illustrating works for the Trans Life & Liberation art series — which celebrates the activists and frontrunners out there making strides for transgender rights, working with Black Lives Matter L.A. to be in position to create on-th-fly artwork for any causes that might arise so we can have Black artists creating content for our movement, and with StrongFamilies & Culture/Strike — two non-profit organizations that are making strides to assist communities of color, queer communities and migrant families. As for any taboo themes or issues that I feel unready to introduce into my art, I haven’t stumbled across one as of yet. There are certainly tender subjects that I want to ensure I do justice, but with those I do research, ask questions and get input from the folks who are experiencing those challenges first-hand before I even begin to touch on the subject with my artwork.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
My success as an artist would mean that I am able to contribute to my household financially in a way that is long term sustainable as well as emotionally and spiritually fulfilling. I joke around a lot that its my dream to be a low-key comic artist and stay-at-home dad/homemaker, but truly it is a dream of mine. While it might be cool to be freelance illustrator and comicker who brings in 6-figure income, I don’t need that to feel to successful (but if you’re offering, I’m gonna take it.)
If you could name one celebrity, who you would love to see your art on their wall, who would it be and why?
Man, that’s tough. I don’t really follow celebs like that and never was the kid who had like celebrity crushes or inspiration or whatever. But probably Anthony Piper. Oh you don’t know?! He created Trill League, which is like a hip-hop parody version of the Justice League with an all Black cast. Its dope! Like extra dope! Sparrow (Trill League’s Robin character) is kinda my everything. So yeah, if he’d like some queer fanboy’s artwork up in his place, I’d be more than humbled.
Any upcoming shows and where we can see you sell your work.
I will have a couple illustrations coming out later this or next month with Culture/Strike. If folks wanna snag some prints, they can head over to my Society 6 page or shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for commission work or to snag some prints/originals if they’re in the city. I just finished setting up a Patreon that should be ready to rock after Monday 7/11/16, and that’s an awesome site that allows folks to make a small monthly donation so I can keep making art and sharing out free comics/illustrations.